30 December 2012

The FBI, The "Private" Sector, the Free Press and the Demise of OWS

So, suspicions of a concerted campaign to suppress the Occupy movement last year turn out to be well-founded. It is not paranoia if they really are out to get you! The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund has issued a report based on government documents that reveal a public-private campaign to suppress the movement. As Naomi Klein points out here at The Guardian no major press outlet in the US managed to investigate the events. And, in keeping with that total indifference, according to the nice folk at Google as of today no major US news outlet seems to have reported on the PCJF report. Free press indeed!

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29 December 2012

End of Year Giving: National Clearinghouse for Defense of Battered Women

At this time of year many of us have mailboxes brimming with solicitations from worthwhile organizations of various sorts. It often is difficult to determine where to give, especially if your budget is relatively tight. So I am going to make a pitch here for an extremely worthy outfit. It is called the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, "a resource and advocacy center for battered women charged with crimes related to their battering." The NCDBW was founded and is run by Sue Osthoff an old friend of mine from our High School days. It is located in Philadelphia. The NCDBW is small and, it's fair to say, runs on more or less of a shoestring. If you send them some money it will go directly into providing legal resources for women who badly need them. Sue has been pursuing this "good fight" for about  three decades. She is among the most honest, hardworking, and flat out admirable people I know. I am certain that she and her colleagues will put anything you can send to excellent use. Thanks.

Update ~ December 2012: I've made this pitch here in the past. I have not really changed it much from past years because there is no need. Thanks.

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Newtown: What's the Big Deal?

You can find the interactive version of this graphic here at Slate. It represents deaths due to gun violence from the Newtown massacre through 28 December 2012. Note - lots and lots of dead kids since the big massacre. Only they were shot one at a time. Newtown is a heartbreak. So too are all these other dead people.

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Annals of Advertising: Peddling Semi-Automatics

The American equation: Manliness = Own a Semi-Automatic Weapon. The latter transforms  you - regardless of the banalities of your actual life - into a real live G.I. Joe. As the advertisement says: "If it's good enough for the professional, it's good enough for you." And if you doubt that last inference, consider this advert from yet another weapons purveyor.

Or, indeed, from the cover and opening page of the 2012 Bushmaster catalog. Buy a semi-automatic, be a warrior and a patriot. It's just like magic!

Two observations. First, this imagery derives from our stunted possibilities. The only way for Americans to connect with some sort of larger undertaking - to make their lives "bigger" - is by joining the military. What other options are there? One way to defuse gun violence might be to explore other possibilities. Second, for the gun fetishists who accuse those advocating controls on firearms of mischaracterizing weapons, look closer to home. The catalog moves effortlessly between "professional" uses (on "missions" by those "Defending Freedom, Enforcing Law") to hunting and target shooting. This is how the manufacturers market their wares, by blurring boundaries and fudging distinctions. We who advocate measures to control access to weapons are simply taking the peddlers at their word.
P.S.: You can find sources for all this here and here and here.

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28 December 2012

Passings ~ Fontella Bass (1940~2012)

Soul/R&B/Jazz vocalist Fontella Bass has died. You can find an obituary here at The Guardian. And here is Bass performing her biggest hit:

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Passings ~ Rebecca Tarbotton (1973~2012)

Environmental activist Rebecca Tarbotton has died (age 39). She was head of the Rainforest Action Network. You can find an appreciation here at Grist and another here at Democracy Now!.

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27 December 2012

A Sane Exchange on Guns, Violence & Self-Defense

First Jeffrey Goldberg published this essay at The Atlantic entitled "The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control)." (The piece was written post-Aurora and prior to the Newtown massacre.) Then he and Ta-Nehisi Coates engaged in this calm and sensible conversation - "More Guns, Less Crime: A Dialogue" - about guns, violence, self-defense and related matters that takes off from Goldberg's essay. I find myself agreeing with the position Coates advocates. Here are some of the good bits, in which he is replying to this query from Goldberg: "I could go on, but let me ask you a question: If you were confronted with an "active shooter," do you think, in that moment, you might wish you had a gun?"
. . . it is not clear to me that human beings, with all of their foibles, always understand where defense ends and aggression begins. George Zimmerman, by his own telling, was defending himself. And given the marks on this head, in some sense he was. But I wonder, if he had been unarmed, whether he would have ever gotten out his car. Michael Dunn, who sprayed a teenager's SUV, claims he was defending himself. But I wonder if he ever would have said anything to those kids if he had not been armed. This has particular meaning in the realm of race, where the mere fact of being black means that an uncomfortably large portion of American society is more likely to perceive your everyday actions as aggressive, and thus justify "defense." There seems to be no sense that the very presence of a gun -- like all forms of power -- alters its bearer, that the possession of a tool of lethal violence might change how we interact with the world [. . .]

If I had a gun, there is a good chance I would shoot myself, thus doing the active shooter's work for him (it's usually "him.") But the deeper question is, "If I were confronted with an active shooter, would I wish to have a gun and be trained in its use?" It's funny, but I still don't know that I would. I'm pretty clear that I am going to die one day. That moment will not be of my choosing, and it almost certainly will not be too my liking. But death happens. Life -- and living -- on the other hand are more under my control. And the fact is that I would actually rather die by shooting than live armed.

This is not mere cant. It is not enough to have a gun, anymore than it's enough to have a baby. It's a responsibility. I would have to orient myself to that fact. I'd have to be trained and I would have to, with some regularity, keep up my shooting skills. I would have to think about the weight I carried on my hip and think about how people might respond to me should they happen to notice. I would have to think about the cops and how I would interact with them, should we come into contact. I'd have to think about my own anger issues and remember that I can never be an position where I have a rage black-out. What I am saying is, if I were gun-owner, I would feel it to be really important that I be a responsible gun-owner, just like, when our kids were born, we both felt the need to be responsible parents. The difference is I like "living" as a parent. I accept the responsibility and rewards of parenting. I don't really want the responsibilities and rewards of gun-ownership. I guess I'd rather work on my swimming. And I think, given the concentration of guns in a smaller and smaller number of hands, there's some evidence that society agrees.

Which is not to say those of us who don't own guns don't want to live. We do. But it's not clear that this particular way of living [ a world in which gun owning/carrying has proliferated] will even be effective. [. . .]

In other words, if I have "have a gun" in that situation, other things are then also true of my life. In other words, there is no "me" as I am right now that would have a gun. That "me" would spend a good amount time being responsible for his weapon. It's not so much a situation that, if I were with you and we were facing down a crazy dude, I wouldn't want to have a gun. It's that I've already made choices that guarantee that I couldn't have one. It just isn't possible, given my life choices. I'd much rather work toward a world where the psychotic shooter is actually a psychotic knifer, or a psychotic clubber. [. . .]

I guess my point is, I have a hard time with a construction of violence that begins and ends in the moment of violent confrontation. My belief is that an intelligent self-defense begins long before that dude with the AR-15 in hand appears. If we're down to me licking off shots, then we are truly lost. And I say that as a dude with a huge poster of Malcolm X on his wall."
In a sense, Coates is advocating a sort of pre-figurative stance. Act as though the world were the way you hope it can be. And work to bring the world into line with those hopes. This risks being self-deceiving or naive. But it is no less so, I suspect, than the Rambo-esque fantasies of gun fundamentalists in which the gun-toting hero shoots up the bad guys - whether those be rogue law enforcement officials or just plain old criminals.

That said, I think Goldberg advances a pretty nuanced and quite sincere argument.  Several things nevertheless struck me about the position he ties to stake out.

First, Goldberg says this more or less at the outset: "I'm dispositionally centrist, in that I believe, as a pretty steadfast rule, that most issues are ambiguous and contradictory, and that no one ideology provides all the answers. Hence, my belief that people (qualified people) have the right to armed self-defense, and that the government has the right (and responsibility) to regulate the sale and carrying of guns." And while that makes him the sort of person with whom one might indeed hold a conversation, it also, as he admits, sets him considerably outside the mainstream of those advocating more or less unfettered access to firearms. Witness Wayne LaPierre's self-caricaturing press conference last Friday.

Second, my view is that there should be no presumption that you (anyone) should be licensed to own/carry a firearm. One should have to demonstrate a reason and the demonstration process should be onerous. Why? because for a reasonable fellow like Goldberg everything, and I mean everything, rides on the  notion that only "qualified people" - responsible, well-trained, psychologically stable - should have access to firearms.  (He calls these folks "vetted, screened, and trained civilian gun owners" and "a law-abiding, sane, and trained person[s].") There is only one way to meet that burden - namely though an onerous vetting process such as those established in the U.K.. And, if this means drastically revising or repealing the 2nd amendment, so be it.

Third,  at one point as part of an exchange about the placement of guns into schools, Goldberg says: "Again, there's no sure thing, but when I hear people say that an armed presence in the school would definitively not have helped, I think they're being fatuous and ideological, as fatuous and ideological as I would sound if I argued that a counter-shooter definitely would have neutralized the threat. My mind keeps returning to the example of Joel Myrick, the assistant principal of a high school in Pearl, Mississippi, who captured a shooter at his school by pointing his legally-owned weapon at him." The problem here is that Goldberg is overly credulous. Actually the case he mentions, and others like it trotted out by the gun fetishists are, like most anecdotes, fairly unpersuasive once one pushes beyond the headlines and look at actual events. In the Pearl case, the "active shooter" had already stopped and wandered into the school parking lot before the assistant principle collected a hand gun and detained him.

More importantly, Goldberg appears fatalistic about all the guns already in circulation: "Canada seems like an attractively gun-free place, but the whole point of the article is to acknowledge that we can't create Canada-like conditions in the U.S. It's just too late. Even if all gun sales were banned tomorrow, there would still be 300 million guns in circulation." But there is some reasonable evidence (from Australia, for instance) that it is possible to implement gun regulations coupled with buy back provisions that take guns out of circulation. And the consequences is a decline in numbers of gun violence against others and against one's self. One can debate any case. And the fetishists will rightly point out that the Australian law has not totally eliminated gun violence or other violent crime. So what? Who would claim that total elimination is even possible. We should aspire to the rates of gun violence that Australia and the UK for instance have. Zero is unattainable. But we can do substantially better than we now do at preventing gun homicides and suicides. Fatalism, talk about this or that "half measure" (as thought half as many gun deaths in a year would not be an immense accomplishment in the US), are I suspect reflections of the libertarianism to which Goldberg subsequently admits. That said, even libertarians should not be complacent or fatalistic on this matter - look at this proposal. Doing nothing is unacceptable.

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24 December 2012

Passings ~ Albert Hirschman (1915~2012)

A remarkable economist and intellectual historian Albert Hirschman has died. A somewhat tardy obituary appears here at The New York Times. There is an appreciation here at The Economist.

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23 December 2012

Rebecca Solnit on 2012

Yet another essay - a retrospective look into the future - by the smart and provocative Rebecca Solnit.


RIJF 2013 - Anticipating Another Bland and Pale Line-Up

To the best of my knowledge organizers of the 2013 Rochester International Jazz Festival (RIJF) have not yet revealed the line up. In the past I have been quite critical of the RIJF for being dominated by white performers and for being (to be polite) musically unadventurous. No need to repeat my comments here. I will save my complaints for when the new line up confirms my low expectations. In anticipation of this year's event I want to offer the following "best of" 2012 from, not some esoteric Jazz mag, but The Denver Post.* Now, one could quibble with some of the choices here, or wonder why some recordings did not make the list - like the record Quiver by trumpeter and Denver resident Ron Miles. That is not my point. Instead, I am giving odds that the intersection of the leaders on this list of recordings and the headliners of the RIJF will approximate zero. Caveat: if it turns out that the intersection can be represented by a positive integer, the digit will be very small and the exception will not be African American. I also am willing to give odds that among the jazz headliners (meaning not acts that are clearly pop, R&B, blues, world music or whatever genre) at the RIJF this year, the ratio of African Americans to "others" will not come close to 50% (as it does on this list). Any takers? I didn't think so.

* "Here's my top 10 for this year, followed by some choice reissues and historical digs:

1. Wadada Leo Smith — Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform): The trumpeters' four-hour-plus meditation on the U.S. civil rights movement, alternating between meetings with his intuitive group and slabs of abstract chamber music turned out to be the most affecting sonic force of 2012. Let it wash over you and be rewarded with honesty and beauty.

2. Neneh Cherry & The Thing - The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound): Putting a trio of rock-leaning jazz musicians in the studio with a jazz-influenced pop singer (who suddenly reappeared after what was essentially a 15- year absence) turned out to be an audacious experiment that worked. The most surprising vocal album of the year: Even the remix project that followed this up is full of humor-tinged energy.

3. Vijay Iyer Trio - Accelerando (ACT): The best-reviewed disc of 2012 deserved the distinction. Pianist Iyer redefines the concept of the piano trio by taking in all of the music that surrounds him, regardless of genre, and filtering it through a great tradition.

4. William Parker Orchestra - Essence Of Ellington (Centering): The avant-garde bassist rediscovers the life in Duke Ellington's compositions and brings some of his own to a large group setting as well.

5. Mary Halvorson Quintet - Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12): The most consistently inventive of the newer guitarists in jazz, Halvorson introduces nine twisting new pieces to her repertoire.

6. Tim Berne - Snakeoil (ECM): Those who gathered to hear saxophonist Berne in Denver this fall for a skronkfest with guitarist David Torn may not be familiar with this aspect of his work, which leans toward the meditative and formally structured, but it's just as cerebral, and more accessible.

7. Steve Lehman Trio - Dialect Fluorescent (Pi): An inspired demonstration of alto saxophone pyrotechnics and almost hook-laden compositions add up to a tour de force.

8. Ahmad Jamal - Blue Moon (Jazz Village): One of jazz history's innovators is still thriving, and this piano genius still has much to teach.

9. Ravi Coltrane - Spirit Fiction (Blue Note): Son of John plays the sax (of course) and does more than pay homage to his dad's ecstatic spirit. Kudos to Blue Note for taking up the jazz mantle again.

10. Sam Rivers/Dave Holland/Barry Altschul - Reunion: Live In New York (Pi): In which a '70s titan gets the guys back together for one final, transcendent gig."

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22 December 2012

Shahidul Alam Interview

Here is a brief Q&A with superb Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam. It turns out to be mostly about the political dimensions of his work as a photographer and coordinator/promoter of photography in his homeland.

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Susan is in Manchester (UK) visiting her folks. So we skype regularly and I've just figured how to capture pictures. I anticipate her wrath for posting these from our conversation this afternoon.

Mock the NRA and its Ilk

Both of these popped up in my FB news feed. (Jef is no relation.) The top one underscores the irony of the NRA, great defender of gun ownership as a bulwark against tyrannical government, proposing that we create even more armed government officials. I guess they've not stopped to think that one through.

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21 December 2012

The NRA on Newtown

A demonstrator held up a banner as Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the
National Rifle Association, delivered a statement in Washington on Friday.

Photograph © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
It is stunning (but predictable) that Mr. LaPierre, spokesman for "responsible" gun ownership, blames everyone but gun owners for recurrent massacres - video games, the media, mentally ill people, liberal NRA haters, policies that seek to keep schools gun free ... Of course, he takes zero responsibility for the NRA pushing an agenda of censorship and intimidation aimed at making unfettered access to guns our default policy. By the way, the picture above, accompanying this story in The New York Times, illustrates just what should happen in the face of NRA nonsense. Talk back, protest, ridicule the idiotic proposals that the NRA and its ilk advocate. You will note that after reading his talking points LaPierre refused to take questions. If his views are so well founded and defensible, why not actually discuss them?

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20 December 2012

Instagram Reflections

"I speak as a recovered digital photography addict. I more or less stopped taking photographs at all once I realised I was subscribing to a cheap self-deception about the originality, beauty and meaning of my tens of thousands of pictures. An enthusiasm has frozen into revulsion."
That is the animating impulse behind this essay by Jonathan Jones at The Guardian. I admit that I sometimes put photos or stolen images up here or on Facebook. But this is a blog partly about photography. And I rarely actually take photographs. So, I've avoided the pendulum swings Jones has experienced. But I also have not been tempted in the slightest by Instagram or similar photo-sharing sites. And that is the focus of the essay - prompted too by the report that the company planned to "monetize" (to take the euphemism de jour) the content subscribers have been uploading there. Jones, of course, is speaking from the perspective of amateurs. But here is the view from the ranks of professional photographers. Unsurprisingly, it differs; no doubt that is because different people will be using (and have used) this technology for different purposes. Just like photography more generally. It is not about the pile of pictures, online or in a shoebox in the closet. Photography is a technology for amplifying vision and imagination. Jones might find that notion therapeutic if he seeks to overcome his phobia.

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19 December 2012

Erik Loomis and Free Speech on Campus

I generally do not write here much about happenings at the University of Rochester where I work. On occasion I complain about labor relations on campus. More often, I've offered my views on this or that episode of "controversial" speech. I tend to be libertarian about the right of people to speak on campus, figuring that the best response to remarks that are wrongheaded, silly, offensive or whatever is to talk back.

Having said that, I want to call your attention to a brewing controversy at the University of Rhode Island. Erik Loomis, an historian and blogger, has generated a fracas over intemperate remarks he made about Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, following the Newtown massacre last week. I do not know Loomis personally. I do know that even though LaPierre is a despicable excuse for a human being neither Erik Loomis nor I literally wish him dead. That said, the pathetic right wing attacks on Loomis - including calls that URI fire him - seem to be growing.  Anything to divert attention from the fact that a kid took guns and shot 27 innocent people to death last week. Over at Crooked Timber a move has emerged to speak in Loomis's defense. I urge you to sign on in support.

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Deficit Politics


As many readers know, I have a son, August, who is six and a half; he is in first grade, like the boys and girls who were massacred in CT last Friday. When I think of those twenty children, I think of my boy. And when I think of this teacher, Kaitlin Roig, and of the teachers who died trying to protect their students last week, I think of Shannon Wolff and the other teachers and staff at John Muir where August goes.

So, while I posted this on my FB page, I think it belongs here too:

In the states that are pressing to deprive teachers and other public sector workers of their right to organize, "first responders" are exempted from the legislation for strategic reasons. Well - here is a first responder. Here is a hero. And this is one of the teachers who survived. The next time you hear someone running his or her mouth about public employees and their unions and how privileged they are, and how overpaid, or how they don't work hard or teach well enough or whatever freak'n thing people like to complain about ... remember this clip. And tell the complainer to kiss your butt. You owe that much to the teachers of the country.

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16 December 2012

Thoughts About Guns and Politics

First, if you are a fan of bi-partisanship and think it will do wonders for our conflictual politics please note that our current morass on gun policy is thoroughly bipartisan. Neither party will challenge the status quo other than to applaud even less restrictive access to weapons of all sorts.

Second, if you are a Republican and have supported all of the recently imposed or proposed restrictions on access to voting - voter ID and so forth - you will know that there is zero evidence that there has been significant voter fraud. We seem to have plenty of evidence that unfettered access to guns is deadly. Where is the groundswell of conservative voices calling out to safeguard the sanctity of life?

Third, there is a nice interactive data map here at The Guardian - just looking at the various correlations deflates much of the gun lobby rhetoric. Then again, that presupposes, that this is a reality based conversation we are involved in.

Finally, there are various policy options around. Libertarians like this fellow (affiliated withe the Florida chapter of the Campaign for Liberty) recommend that we proliferate guns - in their case by eliminating "gun free zones" and allowing (mandating?) teachers to carry weapons. (His comments on policy start @ 1:40 in the segment.)

And here is a "thought experiment" aiming at the same point (aren't academics weird?). Both proposals are nonsense and would be laughable if it weren't the case that, as I've mentioned here before,  similar schemes have been tried already.

Instead of chanting "liberty" (as though incantations will solve problems) while riding the sham authority that comes from having had a "career in law enforcement" here is an actual argument, complete with reasons, for why this policy is totally unpersuasive.

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15 December 2012

Guns Kill People (2)

When I read the paper and see the massacre in CT described as "unimaginable" or "unthinkable" - the words are sprinkled through reports at The New York Times - I keep finding myself wanting to yell 'HEY! Have you not been paying attention? Did you miss the massacre in Portland earlier in the week? Or the half dozen similar episodes earlier in the year?' This is not "evil" visiting the community. It is a man with a gun. Shooting people. Again. And he is doing that because, yes B-E-C-A-U-S-E, we are idiots. We let right wing organizations and demagogues bully us and we let judges and politicians make decisions, by turns moronic and craven, about the unfettered right to bear arms. And on a monthly basis, now, we whimper about how another "unthinkable" and "unimaginable" massacre has occurred.

Oh, and by the way. The semi-automatic weapons Adam Lanza used to kill his mother and then all the kids and staff at the school apparently were his mom's. Yet another instance in which having a gun in the frickn' house made no one safer.

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14 December 2012

Guns Kill People

How do you think the numbers map on to restrictiveness of gun laws? The very thought of someone from the gun lobby or my neighborhood for that matter defending their 'god given right' makes me want to spit.

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Enthusiasms (36) ~ Tarbaby

So, here is a CD by a trio named Tarbaby consisting in Orrin Evans (p), Eric Revis (b) and Nasheet Waits (d).  The trio is designed to be expandable, meaning it is meant, over time, to accommodate friends, collaborators, co-conspirators. In this instance - their second CD, entitled the end of fear (Posi-Tone Records 2010) - their accomplices are J.D. Allen (tenor), Oliver Lake (alto) and Nicholas Payton (trumpet). A very, very, very good CD, and a nice concept for an improvisatory (in the organizational sense) ensemble. Not only is the music terrific, it gives me a bit of a soapbox.

You'll note that among the labels attached to this post is one that reads "jazz." Pianist Orrin Evans has been embroiled in a bit of a fracas regarding whether that term should be accepted, or discarded as insulting and basically racist. You can find a brief story here laying out his views. There is not much news in the disagreement - in which Payton apparently has played a major role. (Recall that the motto of the AACM has been "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future" for decades now.) Lots of white folks nevertheless get worked up about the claim that jazz fundamentally is black people's music. I do not see why that observation is startling at all and, in fact, have written here repeatedly about the racial amnesia surrounding "jazz" in its safe and predictable manifestations, epitomized by the relationship between local jazz fest and the white denizens of suburbia who use it as an excuse for tourist forays into the city.

In any case, Evans is mostly interested in reinvigorating the black audience for jazz. That is an admirable task. And if, in the process, some white folks get their knickers in a knot, that leaves him (rightly, I think) perplexed: "Why is it exclusionary when we all know and we all recognize that jazz is an African-American art form?  . . .  I understand where anything black, to people who are not black, is exclusionary if they're not comfortable in their own skin." I myself look at jazz and other variants of Great Black Music as a gift (intellectual, aesthetic, organizational), which I receive with all the humility I can muster.

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13 December 2012

Art Criticism: The State of the Art?

"Without criticism, the only measure of value in art is money, and that measure has proven to be both fickle and stultifying. As a subject of inquiry, it’s a bore. I know why investment bankers and hedge fund managers prefer it, but why have artists put up with it for so long?" ~ David Levi Strauss
I began an earlier post with this same remark from David Levi Strauss. It seems appropriate, after my last post about the market for "art photography." But it also provides a useful segue into this one, which is meant to call attention to this forum at The Brooklyn Rail which has about three dozen critics - apparently because someone named Irving solicited their views - writing briefly about the state of the art, as it were. Here are a few passages from the contributors that seem to me worth thinking about.
"Art’s position vis-à-vis the market is the most important issue for art criticism to address today. Put in Andy Warhol lingo, the question is this: After “the best kind of art” becomes “business art,” what then? How can art possibly re-assume a critical position in the culture after the total commercialization of the avant-garde?" ~ Christian Viveros-Faune

"Bullied by conservative commentators, most academics no longer stress the importance of critical thinking for an engaged citizenry, and, dependent on corporate sponsors, most curators no longer promote the critical debate once deemed essential to the public reception of advanced art. Indeed, the sheer out-of-date-ness of criticism in an art world that couldn’t care less seems evident enough." ~ Hal Foster


"We might want to separate criticism from theory, at least theoretical mumble-jumble, which certainly not all theory is. Criticism should be about good writing, insight, information, and anything else it can shoehorn in that’s pertinent. It should be bracing, not boring, more heterodox, eclectic, more social, more political, more about life, less about the academy."~ Lilly Wei
A lot of what the contributors say is uninteresting or silly. Some are waaayy too busy dropping names or being self-referential. And none of them, in the end, get it quite right, the way Levi Strauss does in the opening remark. Which is why I recycled it.

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12 December 2012

Photography for the 1%

I came across this story in Forbes about the apparent bull market in "fine art" photography. I have to say that I find that category a contrivance and repeatedly have said so before (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4]). Mostly it is an artifact of the hard work of certain photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans (abetted by eager curators like Lincoln Kirstein) drawing self-serving distinctions between their own images and those produced by"mere" documentations or photojournalists like Lewis Hine and Margaret Bourke-White. If we are to take the Forbes story at face value, the discrimination seems to be paying off.

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Best Shot (231) ~ Adi Nes

(257) Adi Nes ~ From: "my fictional village" Israel, 2012 (12 December 2012).


An Interview with Nelson Lichtenstein . . .

. . . here on "right to work" laws as lethal to solidarity. Lichtenstein is a labor historian at UCSB and all around smart fellow.

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11 December 2012

Passings ~ Galina Vishenevskya (1926-2012)

Galina Vishenevskya, widow of cellist  Mstislav Rostropovich, and musical virtuoso in her own right has died. She was an opera singer and active in the political opposition to the Soviet regime. You can find an obituary here at The New York Times.

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10 December 2012

The "Right to Work for Less Money"

In this clip Obama is correct on the impetus behind "right to work" legislation. And he is correct about the importance of the right to organize. Then he sort of squanders all that toward the end with the 'let's all come together' to make things better. After all, if that were the recipe workers wouldn't need unions! The point of unions is to protect workers from the predations of capitalists out to maximize profit regardless of the costs to others. And, by the way, Paul Krugman hits the nail on the head today with his remarks here at The New York Times regarding the class conflict that underlies increasing inequality in the U.S. ...

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Torture Propaganda

For all the conservatives who moan continuously about the putative liberal bias of the "mainstream media," or "Hollywood" or whatever, the continued glorification of American torturers by said media ought to be grounds for some pause. At The Guardian today Glenn Greenwald comments on yet another installment:
"The claim that waterboarding and other torture techniques were necessary in finding bin Laden was first made earlier this year by Jose Rodriguez, the CIA agent who illegally destroyed the agency's torture tapes, got protected from prosecution by the DOJ, and then profited off this behavior by writing a book. He made the same claim as "Zero Dark Thirty" regarding the role played by torture in finding bin Laden.

That caused two Senators who are steadfast loyalists of the CIA - Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin - to issue statements definitively debunking this assertion. Even the CIA's then-Director, Leon Panetta, made clear that those techniques played no role in finding bin Laden. An FBI agent central to the bin Laden hunt said the same.

What this film does, then, is uncritically present as fact the highly self-serving, and factually false, claims by the CIA that its torture techniques were crucial in finding bin Laden. Put another way, it propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.

Shouldn't that rather glaring "flaw" preclude gushing admiration for this film? Is it possible to separate the filmmakers' political propaganda and dissemination of falsehoods from their technical skills in producing a well-crafted entertainment product?"

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09 December 2012

The Grinch Goes on Vacation

St. Lucia - a nice island getaway! This morning I emailed my ex-wife to arrange to skype with August only to learn that they are now in St. Lucia. This is a woman who has not held a full time job since we were divorced. And, this is the second time in six months that she has spirited August out of the country not just without permission, but without ever even raising the issue. She now is refusing to provide any information about their travel details or whereabouts. In case you are wondering, the divorce decree grants "joint custody." Oh, and she has informed me that (for the third time running - see here and here) she will not deliver August here for holiday visitation as she is obliged to do according to the agreement. This means that, at age (nearly) seven August will have never - not once - spent Christmas with me or his brother. Merry Christmas! Many of my readers know August's mom. Feel free to ask her - when and if you speak - how she gets to be just so special!

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08 December 2012

Strategy for Unions, the Best Defense is a Good Offense

The year started with the Indiana legislature passing so called 'right-to-work legislation (source). And it is ending with the right-to-work campaign now occurring in Michigan (source). This is the law undermining the ability to organize and bargain collectively. The right will no doubt (indeed it does) frame this as an issue of free choice or some such nonsense. That is a post for another day. The point today is to look at the consequences. This is not a strategy for forming well-paying jobs. Quite the contrary.
"A recent study by the International Labor Organization concluded that low-wage work was rare where unionization rates were high. In countries where more than half of workers belong to a union, only 12 percent of jobs pay less than two-thirds of the middle wage, on average.

Still, there is little reason to believe that American labor unions can do much to lift the floor on wages in the future. Fewer than 7 percent of workers in the private sector are in a union. We have the largest share of low-paid jobs in the industrial world, amounting to almost one in four full-time workers, according to the International Labor Organization. And our rates of unionization continue to fall."
That is just one key observation in this story in The New York Times about incipient attempts to organize workers in low-wage industries in the U.S.; a second key observation is this:
"Union leaders know they are fighting long odds — hemmed in by legal decisions limiting how they can organize and protest, while trying to organize workers in industries of low skill and high turnover like fast food. But they hope to have come upon a winning strategy, applying some of the tactics that workers used before the Wagner Act created the federal legal right to unionize in 1935.

“We must go back to the strategies of nonviolent disruption of the 1930s,” suggests Stephen Lerner, a veteran organizer and strategist formerly at the Service Employees International Union, one of the unions behind the fast-food strike. “You can’t successfully organize without large-scale civil disobedience. The law will change when employers say there’s too much disruption. We need another system.”
Just so.

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07 December 2012

Nii Obodai

Alice (From: Who Knows Tomorrow) © Nii Obodai

Nii Obodai is a Ghanian photographer. You can find a brief interview with him, along with a sampling of his work, here at Another Africa.

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06 December 2012

Passings ~ Oscar Niemeyer (1907~2012)

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer has died; you can find an obituary here  and an appreciation here at The Guardian. I knew very little about Niemeyer but two things stand out. The first is that when his first wife died he re-married - at age 99. The second is that he was a committed communist throughout his life. This puts him into the same boat as remarkable, creative intellectuals like Eric Hobsbawm and José Saramago. I must say I don't get that dogged commitment.

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05 December 2012

Political Scientists in the News: Jim Scott

The New York Times has run this nice piece on Jim Scott (Yale political science) who seems like a decent fellow in addition to being really smart. I mentioned Scott's most recent book Two Cheers for Anarchism in passing here a while back.

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04 December 2012

From: Sean O'Hagan

Regular readers will know that I periodically write posts complaining about Sean O'Hagan who is photography critic at The Guardian. For my most resent criticism look here - it links to earlier iterations. The other day the following email from Sean appeared in my in box. I post it here without comment, not because there is nothing to discuss, but simply because his reply is - given my grumpiness - so embarrassingly decent and reasonable.

-----Original Message-----
From: Sean O'Hagan [mailto:sean.o'hagan@guardian.co.uk]
Sent: Mon 12/3/2012 5:30 PM
To: Johnson, James
Subject: here I go again...


 I tried to post on your blog, but the screening process defeated me! Glad you are keeping up with my columns even if we "nearly never" converge.

Some further thoughts on your response to my recurring Deutsche Borse complaint. Would you accept that there is a difference between photography and the photographic?  Not just a semantic difference. It would seem to me they are two distinct practices that sometimes lead to a similar end - interesting, illuminating work. How, though, one judges, say, Killip's work against, say, Henna's is beyond me . What are the shared criteria? One goes out into the world with his camera and reports back. One sits in front of a computer screen, trawls Google Street View, appropriates images that have something in common - places where sex workers gather - and then (re) presents the images as his own.   It seems misguided to assert that they are both "photographers". (Also, Henna, like Phil Collins, Thomas Demand and John Stezaker, all of whose work I also like,  could just as easily be up for the Turner prize. Killip would never be considered.)  This is not just a question of terminology, it raises questions about what photography is....what it is for....as well as the art world's late appropriation of photography, and the teaching of the same.

My second point is to do with the curatorial thrust towards work that could be called conceptual, that is work where the idea and/or the process predominates. I know you will say this is the market, but nevertheless it leaves me uneasy that one of the few photography prizes in Britain with any credibility - and the one emanating from the predominant gallery for photography in the UK - seems so uneasy about photography that is about going out into the world with a camera. Paul Graham is particularly good on this - see his essay The Unreasonable Apple.

Thirdly, the work itself. I like The Afronauts by Cristina Middel and a lot of Henna's work, but I cannot take seriously the notion that their two books are among those that "significantly contributed to the medium of photography in Europe betwen Oct 2010 and Sept 2011".  Off the top of my head, I could put forward Lise Safarti's She, Lucas Foglia's The Natural Order, Christian Patterson's Redheaded Peckerwood, and, if we are going to talk Google Stree View, Doug Rickard, for Christ's sake. But, hey, maybe that's just down to taste.

Anyway, enough from me. Glad to touch base and. for the record, we do converge quite a bit politically, so keep up the good work on that front. I will continue to read with interest and an ever-thickening skin!

all the best,
Sean O'hagan
ps will be checking out Maynard.

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On 'Heartwarming' Photographs (2)

"This photograph has done something terrible and cruel to Jeffrey Hillman. He has been held up to totally unhelpful, mean-minded scrutiny. What an unhelpful, unenlightening picture this turned out to be. Obviously, some may suspect a more calculating aspect to the whole affair – did the picture really just happen to emerge with its flattering light on the New York police department? But that aside, assuming it really is a chance record of a moment of sudden kindness, its viral career demonstrates the fragility of truth and the stupidity of crowds.

Everyone likes this picture, it goes round the world in seconds, it becomes a cosy heartwarming cult for a day. Then the questions start and the warm glow hardens into a remorseless searchlight on an individual who clearly does not need this massive public attention. Hillman is right to wonder what he is getting from all this, as some other viral image displaces a moment too complex, after all, for the illusory warmth of a picture one shares while sipping an eggnog latte in a warm coffee shop."
So says Jonathan Jones at The Guardian. Jeffrey Hillman, of course, is the shoeless, "homeless" vet who become an emblem for the recent feel good about NYC campaign. I was skeptical of the heartwarming photo op at the time and said so here. Mr. Hillman, as The New York Times reports,  turns out to be non-compliant with the heartwarming tale. So much the worse for the tale tellers and for the poor people who will bear the brunt of their disappointment and resentment.

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02 December 2012

Passings ~ Ken Regan (???? ~2012)

Photojournalist Ken Regan has died of cancer; his obituary is here at The New York Times.

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Selling the Autodidact Style

Definition of AUTODIDACT: a self-taught person — au·to·di·dac·tic
Origin of AUTODIDACT:  Greek autodidaktos self-taught, from aut- + didaktos taught, from didaskein to teach.  First Known Use: 1748.

 I found this story, tellingly, in the "Fashion & Style" section of the Sunday New York Times. It is about kids forsaking college in the quest for something 'more meaningful' - a career, riches, changing the world.

I actually think that the idea of not automatically heading to college is a good one. Lot's of kids should not be in college, there is just no where else to warehouse them and protect the unemployment rate from soaring and the prisons from filling even further. The problem is that there are no jobs (jobs, that is, on which one might support oneself) that don't "require" college. So at the SUNY college where Susan teaches we have not only the traditional degrees in, say, liberal arts and nursing, but bogus degrees like recreation & leisure, business, criminal justice, and so forth. All preparing students (by making them pay) for crappy jobs that they might do just as well without a degree. The problem is that companies and government agencies have off-loaded their vocational training programs onto colleges.

All that, however, is not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to point out that there are lots of adults out there hoping to exploit the malaise of teenagers for their own advantage. Let's see, 'If kids are anxious, or undisciplined, or impatient to strike gold, how can I cash in on that?' Hence my comment on the section the story appears in in the newspaper. These people are selling "un" college like they sell jeans or lawnmowers or vacuous self-help manuals. These clearly are exceptionally committed people. Consider this fellow:
Mr. Ellsberg, 35, graduated from Brown University and spent years trying to translate his expertise in post-colonial critical theory into a paying career. So his book tries to impart real-world skills, like salesmanship and networking, which he argues are crucial as white-collar jobs are being downsized or shipped to Bangalore. The future, he added, belongs to job creators, even if the only job they create is their own.
So, having failed at one intellectual fad, Ellsberg tries to help the subaltern speak in the self-help marketplace?

One of the things that a decent student in college would learn about is probability. Pointing to the handful of successful tech sector zillionaires leaves to one side the zillions of people who have failed in the tech sector. As Schumpeter put it, capitalism consists in creative destruction. And that does not happen without casualties. And, of course, another thing that a decent college student might learn is about psychology. Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, et al were not just bright and driven. They were lucky (there's that pesky probability stuff again) and they were ruthless and unrelenting. Can you learn that in a book? Can you learn it in online courses? Can you learn it in a start up? Can you teach yourself to be a sociopath?


01 December 2012

An Interview with Cornel West ...

... here at Counterpunch. It overlaps in many ways with this conversation on Smiley & West this afternoon. For my taste, Dr. West is often a bit long on histrionics, much too long on Christian rhetoric, and too short on analysis. I do appreciate his pushing us to attend to the poor and working classes in America. That said, most poor people are not black. Most African Americans are not poor. Same goes for Hispanics. Most poor people - in absolute numbers - are white. (Source.) So, while I am impressed by Dr. West's discussion of - and openness to -  OWS, and I largely agree with his views on Obama's policies, foreign and domestic, I think that an anti-austerity, anti-poverty political program needs to appeal to a multi-racial constituency. Dr. West does too, I suspect.

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